30 January 2005

"Collapse" beneath "Guns"

Jared Diamond's "Collapse" is another masterpiece of a book, though it pales besides the accomplishment of his earlier "Guns, Germs, and Steel." Bill Polson sent around a copy of Gregg Easterbrooks' NY Times review of Jared Diamond's new book, "Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed" at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/books/review/30EASTERB.html?ex=1108098000&en=5c239660b6ba9d95&ei=5070.

How timely! Since I wasn't feeling well enough to go hiking this morning, I spent much of the day finishing "Collapse."

Like Easterbrook, I loved both books. He discusses quite accurately the appeal and positive aspects of both books, so I'll just discuss his criticisms of the two books, which I respectively disagree and agree with.

His criticisms of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" misstate what the book is about. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" has as its major thesis the fact that, whatever society would become globally dominant at the time technology enabled global reach, it was environmentally determined that it would come from Eurasia. Easterbrook consistently misstates "Guns" as focusing on Europe; in fact, the vast majority of "Guns" focuses on Eurasia, all the way from the Japanese archipelago to Spain, as a unit that was destined to find and spread ideas more quickly within itself than the rest of our world.

What "Guns" does treat as basically coincidental is that the Western European economies were in a strong expansion and growth phase during the 1700-1900 period when global domination became possible technologically. Had technology advanced somewhat faster, it could have happened when other Eurasian cultures such as the Mohammedans in 700-1100 or the Chinese in 200-400 were in a srtong growth and expansion phase. Easterbrook is clearly uncomfortable with this assertion even though "Guns" discusses at length many of the forces (internal competition primary among them) that made Western European cultures so successful during their growth period. Personally I found Diamond's interpretation far more compelling than Easterbrook's claim of cultural supremacy as a root factor.

Another minor criticism is Easterbrook's attempt to poke fun at the praise of Tokugawa Japan's forestry policies: "But wait -- pre-Meiji Japan collapsed!" he says in a paragraph-ending zinger. This is a petty, and conscious, disregard of the meaning of collapse; in fact, while Japan indeed had a civil war and change of leadership caste 170 years after the policies described were instituted, it did not suffer any population loss and adapted to the arrival of western technology better than any other Asian power. It did not, in the terms of either the book or the popular meaning, collapse.

In terms of Easterbrook's general criticism of "Collapse", however, I'd have to say he's closer to the mark. There's not much room to dispute Diamond's accounts in "Collapse" of the historical societies he studies; the book is extensively footnoted an in particular comes with a great "Further Reading" list that has added at least 3 books to my Amazon wishlist (and again, Esterbrook accurately and clearly praises this part of the book). But the final chapters regarding the application of these lessons to the future are the shakiest (often true for histories, now that I think about it).

In particular, "Collapse" repeatedly asserts in its final chapter that it's not possible for Third World countries to catch up to First World lifestyles. Unlike the meticulously researched opening areas of the book, that statement simply isn't given any kind of rigorous backup it should require to prove that this is truly impossible. It fails on the same basis as a number of assertions of the "anti-growth" camp (see "The Limits to Growth" by Meadows et al as a good summary of the basic arguments in that direction); namely, that all predictions start with, "If current trends continue..." That doesn't turn out to be a particularly good way to predict the future if you take the wrong timeframes and variables, or only the first or second derivatives of them, into account. Yes, if the "First World lifestyle" entailed as much ecological damage in the future as the First World countries caused in order to get to that lifestyle, it would probably be impossible for more countries to get there. But there isn't a strong reason to assume that the same resource usage curves will always apply. It may well be that in the future we can support a First World lifestyle with less ecological impact than we have caused to date (in fact, Diamond's book is full of arguments for doing just that).

(here's an quick and overly simplified example if you're not familiar with the back-and-forth on this argument, btw: Industrializing societies use exponentially increasing amounts of coal per person. Since China is in that phase right now, the argument goes, they use exponentially increasing amounts of coal per person on a large population base -- which has definitely been true for the last several years. Therefore, we will run out of coal because when we multiply that out and draw their exponentially increasing line on the graph, we find they will exhaust world coal stocks. The flaw in this argument is that societies don't continue to use exponentially increasing amounts of coal once they've become industrialized. They do shift to oil-based fuels, but even then they don't use exponentially increasing amount of fuel for very long; thus the pro- and anti-growth camps argue about the exact timeframes and magnitudes of such corrective factors)

In addition, to my surprise for a generally thorough author, Diamond and raises but then fails to address what I think is a huge weakness in first-world attempts to dictate (rather than encourage) third-world development policies. Here is a passage from a section in "Collapse" discussing objections to environmental conservation attempts (emphasis mine):

"In all my experience of ... Third World countries with growing environmental problems and populations, I have been impressed that their people know very well how they are being harmed by population growth, deforestation, overfishing, and other problems. ... The reason why the forest behind their village is nevertheless being logged is usually either that a corrupt government has ordered it logged over their often-violent protest, or else that they signed a logging lease with great reluctance because they saw no other way to get the money needed next year for their children."

First of all, let's be clear: corrupt governments signing away development rights to line the pockets of the rulers is a blight on the earth. However, in the second option, Diamond is saying that the locals have made an informed decision to take the short-term benefit against the long-term loss. If the villagers in Indonesia think that's their best option even though they are well-informed about the consequences, how can Diamond or any other outsiders think they know better? He doesn't address this question at all, instead segueing to a different topic.

In many cases, of course, the above is just an intellectual wriggle because the information needed to make sensible tradeoffs isn't available or well-known; that's a fair observation as well. In fact, the greatest contribution of "Collapse" is in focusing on the difficult-to-perceive role of soil degradation in societal collapses, so that such decisions about developmental trade-offs can be made with more knowledge of the real costs on either side.

The bottom line is that there are plenty of reasons to read "Collapse"; like with "Guns", you'll be amazed at the topics you'll become better informed about in the process (I didn't even know what "palynology" was). I just liked the book better until I read the final chapter. And in that sense, I generally agree with Easterbrook's comment on the new book.